Indian Time - A Voice from the Eastern Door

The Ruffed Grouse


February 28, 2008

The Ruffed Grouse is a bird of the northern woodlands. It lives in 38 states and 13 Canadian provinces. It measures about 12 inches in length and weighs between 1 to 1 3/4 pounds. It is well known for its courtship drumming and explosive take-off when it hears someone or something approaching. Their name comes from the male’s concealed neck ruff that is displayed during courtship.  The name of our territory, Akwesasne, is named after this bird’s drumming courtship ritual. Akwesasne translated means, “Land Where the Partridge Drums,” which some say may refer to the population of the bird here, or the sound the rapids, prior to the building of the Seaway, used to make that sounded like the drumming of the birds.

If you are lucky enough to see one drumming, this is what you will see. In late March or early April the males begin their spring drumming ritual. The male usually will stand on a log, puff out his neck, sometimes stand on his toes, display his banded fan-shaped tail, and then begin to beat his wings. The bird compressing air beneath its wings creates the drumming sound you hear. Many believe the drumming sound comes from him beating his wings on the log, but this is not true. The male grouse may also stand on tree roots or boulders to drum.  He makes the sound like that of the beating of a distant drum to call (court) a female grouse.

The population of ruffed grouse is largely dependent on the proper management of forests that contain aspen, birch, oak, aspen and hazel.  Ruffed grouse have four main habitat requirements. They need “drumming logs” for males (fallen trees), nesting cover for the females, brood cover, and fall and winter cover.  Throughout most of their range, ruffed grouse depend on aspen buds, twigs and catkins to meet their nutritional requirements.  Good grouse habitat will support as many as one bird for every four acres in a good peak year. However, in a down year there may only be one bird for every 40 acres. Grouse do not migrate; therefore, the quality of their habitat is very important. Nothing can be done to control predators and natural cycles that cause severe weather or lack of plentiful food, so management of their territory is important.

In the winter, ruffed grouse have comb-like fringes on the sides of their toes that act like snowshoes. These fringes allow them to travel easily on the snow. These comb-like fringes structures are called, pectinations. In preparation for winter and cold a few things happen in the late fall. The grouse begin to grow feathers on their legs that completely cover them.  This helps them to conserve body heat.  As winter approaches, they switch their diets from weed seeds, greens such as clover, and berries to a diet of acorns, buds, and twigs. 

Ruffed grouse spend the winter months trying to keep warm, out of the way of predators, and well fed.  At night they will roost in a stand of conifers or in a woodlot that will protect them from the wind.  They leave these protective areas to fill their crops (an area inside their throat) and then return to cover to digest.  This digestive metabolism process creates heat and helps to keep the birds warm. They very often will form small groups of about 10 birds.

When there is at least 10 inches of soft powdery snow, the grouse will burrow or sometimes dive right into a snow bank where they will spend the night.  These snow burrows are much warmer than a tree roost. Amazingly there is as much as a 45-degree difference in centigrade temperature between the air above and the burrow.  If the weather is very severe, the grouse will stay beneath the snow for a few days. While this protection from the cold is good, the grouse in snow burrows are much more susceptible to predators.

In the spring, in a nest lined with dried leaves and some of the hen’s feathers the hen lays from 9 to 14 whitish or buff colored eggs. This nest is usually in medium-sized woods and is a shallow bowl in the ground usually at the base of a tree. It takes her about 11 days to finish laying all of her eggs. The hen, alone, then incubates the eggs for about 24 days.  During this time, she eats high-energy foods like the catkins of aspen trees, the newly emerging leaves, or forbs of the forest floor, which are herbaceous flowering plants that are not grasses, sedges or rushes. The incubating hens leave the nest in the early morning and then again in the evening for brief feedings. As the time nears for the eggs to hatch or during inclement weather, the hens will stay in the nest.

The eggs hatch in late May or early June. They hatch at the same time because the female waited until she laid the last egg to begin to incubate them. After only a few hours the newly hatched chicks are dry and they follow their mother away from the nest to a protective covering.  The newly hatched chicks are precocial, which means they hatch at a well-developed stage and do not need to spend time growing in the nest.

For 8 to 12 weeks the hen leads her chicks around an area that is at least 10 acres in size. If a predator threatens her chicks, she will feign an injury hoping it will distract the predator.  Usually each hen has her own territory, but occasionally intermixing of broods will occur. By August the brood that started out as 11 chicks may be lucky to have 6 remaining. The chicks that do make it through that first critical summer and winter will start the cycle over again by breeding the following spring.


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